Today, I introduce you to one of our most dazzling local butterflies — the Baltimore checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton). I am starting this challenge early so you have a chance to keep your eyes out for this little treasure during its short flight time.
Before I go any further with the species, however, I suppose I really have to explain the name of this butterfly.
I’m guessing that you’ve heard of Christopher Columbus, the great explorer who “discovered” the New World, but chances are you haven’t heard of many of the people who followed him to the New World. Well, it turns out the Baltimore checkerspot is named after one of those people.
In 1631, a man named George Calvert was actively looking for a place to settle in North America. Calvert was an English nobleman, so he was able to petition the king of England for lands in the New Colonies. He had tried living in Newfoundland, but found the winter to be so long and unpleasant that he decided to head for warmer territories farther south. In 1632, the king finally granted him the lands that became the state of Maryland.
Calvert’s nobility was established when the king appointed him the Baron Baltimore of County Longford, Ireland. Today, Calvert’s legacy is commemorated in the name of one of Maryland’s largest cities (Baltimore) and one of the Northeast’s most beautiful butterflies — the aforementioned Baltimore checkerspot.
Why the connection between the baron and the butterfly? Well, Baron Baltimore’s official robes were red, black and white, just like the colors on the Baltimore checkerspot’s wings.
Here in upstate New York, we are likely to see the first adult Baltimore checkerspots flying around in the second week of June. Their numbers will grow gradually until they hit their peak around the 4th of July. I’ve timed things so this column will appear at just about the same time as the first checkerspots, so keep your eyes peeled.
Baltimore checkerspots love wet meadows, where they can find a plant called the turtlehead. They stick close to these plants because this is where the females want to lay their eggs. If you can find a turtlehead plant, you are virtually guaranteed to find Baltimore checkerspots as well.
In case you’ve never seen a turtlehead flower, I’ve added a link to the “Readers Corner” page of my website where I show both the butterfly and the flower it loves.
The Baltimore checkerspot is an energetic butterfly that is a little on the small side. The leading edge of each wing is about 11⁄8 inches, which would put the overall width of the entire insect at a little more than two inches. They are quite “zippy,” and it will be the lucky observer who gets a close look at a Baltimore checkerspot sitting still.
A good place to look for any butterfly is a patch of exposed soil where important minerals can be found. You can even create your own mineral lick by soaking a brightly colored sponge in any kind of sports drinks that contain sugars and salts.
Just place the sponges in places where you can keep an eye on them, and I bet you’ll have all sorts of insects visiting them in no time. You might want to place the sponge away from your house, however, in the off chance that you attract ants.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.